Heavenly Merchandize: How Religion Shaped Commerce in Puritan America
Princeton University Press, 2010
360 pp., $47.95
Lauren F. Winner
"The Most Satisfying Trade"
To be sure, it might give pause to modern heirs of liberal Protestantism who lament the power of a capitalist economy. It reveals a certain irony that the founders of the progressive religious tradition served the market so well. So, too, this storyline might unsettle contemporary claimants to Reformed Christianity who revere capitalism. It discloses discontinuities between their religious tradition and their economic ethics.
It is Valeri's prerogative not to lay his cards on the table. At risk of twisting his finely wrought historical analysis into a tendentious morality tale, here is one attempt to suggest what's at stake in the tale he has so compellingly crafted: When New England's divines reshaped their market practices around the prerogatives of political economy, they lost the ability to assess morally how money was earned. Money's morality was judged only by what it could purchase. In this, we can draw a line from 18th-century Christians in Boston back to the Italian humanists of the 15th century, who, as commerce came to be seen as the basis for nations' flourishing, argued that greed produced the wealth that made possible civic and cultural life, and declared approvingly (as did Bracciolini in his famous treatise on avarice) that "everything we undertake is for the pursuit of profit." Those humanists, of course, were on to something: shameful gain and other rapacious market practices were crucial to the early modern building of cities, necessary to the expansion of artistic knowledge, scientific knowledge, even theological knowledge. Transplant that Italian insight into colonial New England, and you get clergymen who believe that a community's health depended in part on merchants' wealth and the civic projects that mercantile bounty, however ill-gotten, funded. Thus one of Valeri's protagonists, the pious merchant Hugh Hall, could unblushingly participate in the slave trade as long as he turned some of his gains to the public good.
Consider price-gouging as a synecdoche for the changes Valeri charts. At the outset of Valeri's story "the market will bear it" was not, in New England, an acceptable explanation for anything; by the end of the story, profit was its own persuasive self-justification. By the early 18th century, political economy had eroded the restraints that had kept rapaciousness in check; it had opened the floodgates to, among other things, the exploitation of the needy and the helpless on which America's industrial system would come to depend; it had begun to make imaginatively and theologically possible a political order in which law and custom (not to mention preaching) would grant initiative and the benefit of the doubt to those who controlled capital. What was lost when New Englanders gave themselves over to the moral priorities of political economy was the ability to limit the mechanizing and mobilizing of the exploitative, profit-driven impulse that we call "the market."
Milton—the Puritan poet—had it right when he located Mammon (Mammon, who sins against liberality and justice; Mammon, who even during his heavenly days was "downward bent," so focused on the gold that paved heavenly streets that he missed the beatific vision) in Hell.
Lauren F. Winner is an assistant professor at Duke Divinity School. For the academic year 2010-11, she is a visiting fellow at Yale's Institute for Sacred Music. Her book A Cheerful and Comfortable Faith: Anglican Religious Practice in the Elite Households of Eighteenth-Century Virginia has just been published by Yale University Press.
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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